The importance of reciprocity in gluing society back together

Rt Hon Professor the Lord David Blunkett

Professor of Politics in Practice, University of Sheffield

Throughout the world and over decades, putting communities at the heart of policymaking has faced challenges. Learning from the past is essential as we look to reinforce and develop the power of civil society as both a force for good, but also as a democratic element in reinforcing citizenship and therefore participative democracy, in the years ahead.

“If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, it will be best attained when all persons alike share in government to the utmost” – Aristotle

“A socialist society that is true to its egalitarian principles of human brotherhood must rest on the widest possible diffusion of power and responsibility so as to enlist the active participation of as many as possible of its citizens in the tasks of democratic self-government” – G. D. H. Cole

Since the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, much has been said and written about the response, not only of the established voluntary and community sector, but of many men and women in their neighbourhoods and communities.

Quite rightly, the human response and the ‘pop-up’ mutual aid groups have been seen as a shining light in an otherwise very dark period. But behind the mutuality and reciprocity that was the hallmark of certain parts of the early response to Covid in the UK, there exists an often unsung and unrecognised critical element both of our societal wellbeing and the functioning of our democracy: civil society.

In oppressive and totalitarian regimes, civil society often exists under the surface. The interaction of men and women within their own extended family groupings and in their neighbourhoods maintains the fabric of a functioning society when all else is failing around them, even in autocratic and antidemocratic nations. This is of course true in war zones, areas where conflict has been endemic for years, as well as in countries where those holding the levers of power see even informal interaction outside their control as something of a threat.

In democracies such as our own, there’s been a paradox. You would expect those from the ideological right of politics to be strongly in favour of civil society. Certainly, David Cameron held out the image of the Big Society as he and his Chancellor, George Osborne, set about diminishing the role of the state and imposing eye-watering austerity measures on the people of the UK.

But funding activity at local levels to support the development and maintenance of social capital came a long way down the list of priorities. Local government clearly has a part to play in developing and maintaining the capacity of men and women to take hold of and have a say in what is happening to them and the community around them. Yet, under austerity, local government took the biggest financial hit of any part of the public sector, with the exception of the NHS, with a 25 to 30% reduction in funding.

Equally, Margaret Thatcher seemed to believe sincerely that if the role of the state was diminished, then philanthropy, coupled with person-to-person giving, would fill the vacuum. Her early experiment in diminishing government intervention demonstrated that the ‘social’ free market was anything but free to those who lost out.

On the left of politics too, both here and across the world, there has been complete ambivalence. For Marxists and neo-Marxists, the state is the vehicle for driving through radical change, top down, and the only vehicle for providing public services.

Modern apologists and techno-Marxists such as Grace Blakeley in her book Stolen see the role of government as all pervading, providing goods and services on the basis of need through a modern form of state paternalism. They are not alone. Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and the immediate post-WWII Government, believed that they should do the ‘right thing’ for people, driven from the top.

To be fair, the 1945 Government was not only dealing with the immediate aftermath of the war, but also dealing with continuing massive shortages in essential food and basic materials. Paternalism was understandable, if caricatured by Hayek in his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom.

“Social capital depends on people coming together, working together and learning together, including learning leadership skills. It depends upon the ability of people to draw down on the very different offers that they can make from their own experience and capability.”

However, since the Industrial Revolution, there has been a different strand of socialist and social democratic thought: one based on the reality of how people came together in the 19th century to create the goose and burial clubs, which were all about saving for Christmas or for providing for a respectful internment. The early trade unions, particularly the craft unions, were based on the same principles of reciprocity. Friendly societies accounted for not only a very substantial amount of self-help, but also engagement over a staggering proportion of the population of the mid-to-late 19th century, as outlined by E. P. Thompson in his 1963 book The Making of the English Working Class.

Today we face a different challenge. While basic neighbourhood and community organisations, town and city-wide voluntary bodies and county associations still thrive, the pandemic has seen both eulogies to their existence and a massive shortage of resource and support to maintain their capacity. Social capital depends on people coming together, working together and learning together, including learning leadership skills. It depends upon the ability of people to draw down on the very different offers that they can make from their own experience and capability. Yet today one of the genuine threats to the maintenance of civil society comes from people having to turn to social media in order to maintain contact. Isolation and fragmentation are inimical to building the most important asset we have in reinforcing civil society: people themselves.

It is in that light that we should view how best to reinforce and develop the power of civil society as both a force for good, but also as a democratic element in reinforcing citizenship and therefore participative democracy, in the years ahead.

There is a great deal to learn from what has been tried in the past, and where governments have genuinely attempted to reinforce valuable non-governmental activity. From cooperatives and social enterprises, to neighbourhood budgeting (decision-making on the local use of public resources), to shared allotments and environmental protection measures, civil society has flourished with the right political attention.

Communitarianism has been seen, as it was when I was in government, as a soft underbelly and a diversion from ‘getting things done’. Yet the mobilisation of the goodwill, commitment and togetherness of people is not only vital in filling the gaps and providing the innovation and enterprise so often lacking in government from the top down, but it’s also essential for the very lifeblood of a functioning, civilised society.

That is why the Labour Government from 1997 undertook measures to support civil society that are now unsung and probably unknown. This comes from a long tradition for the party: in the 1980s Labour in Local Government was pioneering initiatives, spelt out in my own case in the joint works with Professor Geoff Green (Building from the Bottom, 1983) and Democracy in Crisis: The Town Halls Respond by Keith Jackson and myself in 1987.

In government, Hazel Blears and I were interested both in expanding and supporting the role of civil society in delivering policy goals but also in reinvigorating that sense of belonging and identity that is the crucial glue that holds any society together. In our chapter in Whose Government Is It?: The Renewal of State-Citizen Cooperation, edited by Henry Tam, we drew on some of the examples that we’d been involved in, jointly and separately, to promote active citizenship.

This had started with the Government’s establishment of citizenship and democracy as part of the National Curriculum. Although in many schools it has been taught badly or not at all, it was a major endeavour to ensure that young people were able to engage not just in theory but in practice. That is why I personally supported the initiative of the Coalition Government post 2010 to establish the National Citizen Service. It followed logically from my own earlier endeavours, including when, as a trustee of what was then Community Service Volunteers (now Volunteering Matters), I established a full-time programme entitled Millennium Volunteers.

In the Home Office, the decision to promote naturalisation as a very positive element of social cohesion led us to believe that those applying should not only have support in understanding British society and at least a basic grasp of English, but also that we should celebrate their commitment in naturalisation ceremonies. This, again, was all about ensuring that we saw that commitment to each other – our responsibilities and duties, not just our rights – as an essential part of making a difference and empowering people to be part of the solution to the challenges of the modern era.

Thinking back now, some of the initiatives that were undertaken from the then Education and Employment Department, the Home Office and latterly when Hazel Blears was Secretary of State at Communities and Local Government, were not very well presented or understood.

One policy of which I am enormously proud was neither explained clearly nor embedded in the national psyche. That was the original local Sure Start programme, the essence of which was drawing down on and reinforcing the strength of community, not just collaborative professional input from outside.

The Together We Can initiative from the Home Office in 2003 endeavoured to engage all government departments in facing outwards and working in partnership with those committed to social improvement at local level. My own pamphlet, A Civil Society: Are we nearly there yet? published in September 2003, was a long-forgotten contribution to this objective.

Another example would be Communitybuilders, which could be misinterpreted as an apprenticeship scheme for the construction industry! Meanwhile, Guide Communities was an important experiment that unfortunately was dropped before the demise of the Labour Government. It was all about those who had succeeded being able to act as consultants to other aspirants setting up their own neighbourhood and community action plans. Yet the title didn’t exactly give away the intent.

But this latter point was that we did not employ KPMG or PwC to come in from outside as missionaries and tell people what they already knew. We used the time and talent of local people to be able to empathise and work with those struggling to achieve their own success. It was and surely is a symbol of faith in a very different approach to the current one of employing the same old, same old professionals, making a damn good living at the expense of the rest of us.

“The country has demonstrated that at local level, in the hands of local people, real progress can be made and a counterweight can be provided to what hits us from an ever-present global environment.”

If anything is likely to counteract the alienation and downright cynicism of those who, in their despair, voted in large numbers in parts of our country to leave the European Union and to place their trust in December 2019 in Boris Johnson, it has to be a different kind of politics: a politics that is just as important in our relationships in civil society as it is in casting a ballot in an election, or taking part in formal politics and pressure group activity.

We now have a Conservative Government committed to more centralised fiat and diktat than any outside wartime, and a Labour Party that has just escaped from the leadership of a group believing that virtually all our essential activities should be carried out and directed by the state. The irony may be lost on many. Yet the country has demonstrated that at local level, in the hands of local people, real progress can be made and a counterweight can be provided to what hits us from an ever-present global environment.

We can’t escape either from the high-tech companies – from the Amazons to the international financiers – any more than we were able to escape from Covid, but we can do something to counterbalance their effects, to protect ourselves and to promote our best interests.

And so to my conclusion: in a very modern sense, people’s interaction, communication and sense of identity will be affected as much by their connectivity on social media as by their engagement with their neighbourhood, their friends and those with similar interests at a very local level. All the more reason, therefore, to look at ways of learning from the past, uncovering the best in new ways, and avoiding reinventing the wheel where things have seriously gone wrong – above all, to recognise that success comes from delivering with people, not to them.

“It is not just about the important area of person-to-person contact and giving, but is also about scaling up, reinforcing and ensuring support from government.”

The lessons from the community development programmes of the 1970s, and the substantial capital investment that failed to engage with local people through the New Deal for Communities programme in the 2000s, all point to the value of local sustained engagement.

Throughout past efforts by successive governments to bring about substantial restoration of the fabric of communities, long-term benefit has not been sustained because the people to whom the investment was committed were neither in a position to act as, nor embraced as, key partners in the driving force for change.

For the future, it will be important to pick up those experiments that worked well but often were not given sufficient long-term support to gain a foothold and become embedded as part of the accepted partnership between formal institutional and democratic processes, and informal civil society.

Therefore, it is not just about the important area of person-to-person contact and giving, but is also about scaling up, reinforcing and ensuring support from government.

As spelled out in this review of what civil society might mean in the future, I have sought to recognise that only central government can develop the resources and provide both the legislative and political clout to bring about the kind of democratic counterweight to global power that affects men and women in their day-to-day lives. But citizenship and consumer power, supported by an underpinning of those democratic processes, can be the difference between success and failure.

Above all, whether in social movements to combat climate change, or neighbourhood groups seeking to support the development of leadership skills to mobilise the talent around them, we have surely learnt that what you give, you get back in spades.

Building and understanding the importance of reciprocity can and must put the glue back into a fractured society.